Making Heart Disease History

OHSU Extra, Winter 2013

Phil and Penny Knight's landmark $125 million pledge establishing the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute will change the game in heart health for every generation.

"Your heart is failing." The devastating news confirmed what Yolanda Randlett already suspected after living most of her life with a damaged aortic valve. But what she heard next from her brash young doctor came as a surprise. "We can help you." 

That was 50 years ago. The doctor, an up-and-coming OHSU heart surgeon named Albert Starr, M.D., had just invented the world's first artificial heart valve. It saved her life. In September 2012, a healthy and active Yolanda came back to OHSU for another visit with Dr. Starr. This time, she came to help celebrate the launch of the Knight Cardiovascular Institute.  

A historic investment 

In the largest private donation ever made to OHSU, Phil and Penny Knight have pledged $125 million to establish the Knight Cardiovascular Institute. Nationally, it is the largest philanthropic gift for cardiovascular medicine ever reported. 

Under the leadership of world-renowned cardiovascular researcher Sanjiv Kaul, M.D., and pioneering heart surgeon Albert Starr, M.D., the institute aspires to turn the tables on this intractable public health problem. The new institute will include OHSU's diverse programs of cardiology, cardiac and vascular surgery, interventional radiology and stroke. 

The historic gift comes just four years after the Nike co-founder and chairman and his wife invested $100 million to establish OHSU's Knight Cancer Institute. That gift brought star-caliber cancer researchers and clinicians to OHSU and strengthened the institute's global leadership in personalized cancer medicine. 

"Phil and Penny Knight have made an extraordinary gift to all people touched by cardiovascular disease," said OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A. "We are proud to have once again earned their trust as a partner in creating a healthier world. Phil and Penny share our confidence that we can finally reduce the many, many preventable deaths each year due to cardiovascular disease by innovating, collaborating and educating." 

Tapping into a translational vein 

"This is our opportunity to finish what was started 50 years ago," said Starr. "We're entering a new golden age of cardiovascular medicine, and there's never been a better opportunity to make significant, lasting change. Translational research is the key." 

Translational research – which Starr modeled to great success in the early 1960s – is what first put OHSU on the world's cardiovascular map. Starr and his engineer collaborator Lowell Edwards worked side by side to develop and test a life-saving device, marketed as the Starr-Edwards valve, which would become the gold standard in heart valve repair for the better part of 50 years. 

"Cardiovascular mortality fell by more than 50 percent between 1960 and 2006," said Starr, "yet it's still our No. 1 killer. Stroke is No. 3. Through this institute, we can take important new steps to change this trend." 

Kaul's world-class heart imaging breakthroughs are also a testament to what translational research can accomplish. More than 5 million cardiac patients around the world have undergone the extraordinary, non-invasive diagnostic procedure he pioneered. Microbubble-based myocardial contrast echocardiography (MCE) detects heart attacks that other methods miss, and sends patients home who don't need hospital care. This revolutionary technology saves lives every day. 

"More than 80 percent of cardiovascular deaths can be prevented," said Kaul. "Changing that number means changing the accepted traditions of cardiovascular medicine. The Knights have given our institute what it takes to translate our world-class science into better preventions, diagnoses and cures." 

"We are extremely grateful for this gift," said Mark Richardson, M.D., M.B.A., dean of the OHSU School of Medicine. "It will allow us to build the capacity for treating cardiovascular disease across the full continuum of biomedical science, from basic discovery to clinical research to drug and device development." 

The gift will give Starr and Kaul immediate leverage in recruiting and retaining additional international-caliber faculty in high-impact areas. It will also assist them in acquiring new scientific capabilities that will drive discovery in cardiovascular health as well as stroke, cancer, neurological disorders, immunodeficiency, diabetes and other diseases.